CORVALLIS, Ore. – Like many agricultural sectors, the meat processing industry in Oregon struggles to recruit and retain entry-level employees, especially in smaller operations. Across the nation, few colleges and universities offer meat-cutting training, a shortage Oregon State University Extension Service hopes to change.
A three-year $650,000 grant allows OSU Extension’s Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network (NMPAN) to lead a collaborative, multi-state program to help solve workforce issues in Oregon and the rest of the Pacific Northwest. The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture starts a process to determine the most appropriate training programs to support a robust and sustainable workforce, said Rebecca Thistlethwaite, Extension outreach specialist and director of NMPAN.
“Oregon has hundreds of small-scale plants, a lot of mom-and-pop operations,” Thistlethwaite said “They find it hard to find employees or people to take over the business. Add to that there’s no meat cutting program in the state and there’s a problem.”
In addition to OSU Extension, six universities were awarded funds from a $4.5 million grant from USDA-NIFA’s Meat and Poultry Processing – Agricultural Workforce Training program. Each university is tasked with creating detailed plans – while working with a community college or technical school – to offer more training on butchering and fabricating meat.
To start, Thistlethwaite plans to conduct a survey to determine the needs and struggles of employees and employers. She’ll use the data to work with partners Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton and the Northwest Meat Processors Association to design effective training programs.
“Some of other programs are hitting the ground running, creating certification programs or two-year associate degrees,” Thistlethwaite said. “We didn’t want to put something out there based on assumptions. That’s why we’re taking the first year for a needs assessment. We want a program that will last and serve both employees and employers. What training would employers like to see? What training would employees like? What are their aims?”
One of the main objectives of the survey is to find out if shop owners will compensate workers for additional training.
“It boils down to if the employee makes the effort to do a series of workshops or a three-month long certificate program will they be paid more at the completion of the program?” said Thistlethwaite, who added that the training program will have a strong emphasis on making the curriculum inclusive and accessible to historically marginalized communities. “If we provide skilled workers, will their salaries reflect that? That’s a huge issue. Will owners put their money where their mouths are?”
The grant will allow Blue Mountain, which already has a meat lab and two courses, to expand its meat processing program with new equipment and a meat lab manager. Thistlethwaite said the college could eventually offer professional certification, which takes three months, or a two-year associate degree in meat cutting and entrepreneurship that will include how to develop a business plan, leadership, accounting – skills that could bring workers knowledge that could lead to owning their own business.
After the needs assessment survey, Thistlethwaite and her collaborators will take a two-pronged approach. They will work with Northwest Meat Processors Association to build and strengthen the apprenticeship program. Geared toward people already in the field, an apprenticeship gives them the opportunity to get union jobs. The team will also work to design a certification program with Blue Mountain and consider adding an associate degree in meat processing.
“We want to design a program that gives workers the skills to get hired, advance in the workforce, obtain living wages and be ready to launch their own businesses,” Thistlethwaite said.